Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A Common Nuclear Standard for Iran, Israel, & Pakistan

Negative incentives to compel Iranian submission on the nuclear issue rests policy on a one-legged stool. It is the bad, blind, old failed approach of the neo-cons. Allison only went half way toward addressing how to resolve the West's nuclear dispute with Iran.

Even as Larry Derfner from Israel was warning about national paranoia, Graham Allison was making this crucial statement:

Every option available at this point requires living with an Iran that knows how to enrich uranium. Continued denial of this truth is self-delusion.

But then Allison goes on to offer his solution:

The best hope for defining a meaningful red line is to enshrine the Iranian supreme leader's affirmations that Iran will never acquire nuclear weapons in a solemn international agreement that commits Russia and China to join the United States in specific, devastating penalties for violation of that pledge.

This is a well-phrased summary of the same error made by the neo-cons, a negative, bullying attitude based on the assumption that Iran only understands the language of force. It is, almost by definition, extremists who only understand the language of force, and they are sadly prominent everywhere one looks today. But even the most cursory review of Iranian history suggests that if Washington were to approach Iran with sincere respect and willingness to reach a balanced accommodation, there would be reason to think progress could be made.

By all means, let us pursue the course Allison recommends…BUT only in coordination with the other half of a reasonable approach: positive incentives for compliance.

Incentives--positive paired with negative--should be offered on multiple levels simultaneously, including the principle of common standards for all countries, the lesser principle of regional parity, and bilateral discussions of a practical deal right now.

  • Common standards: The principle of common standards for all should be enunciated as the ultimate goal, while admitting honestly that we really have no idea how to attain that goal.
  • Regional Parity: The lesser principle of regional parity should be enunciated as a more proximate goal, while again admitting honestly we don’t even know how to attain that goal.
  • Bilateral Negotiations: In the context of advocacy of the principle of common standards and the launching of a diplomatic initiative to define common nuclear standards for Iran, Pakistan, and Israel, bilateral talks between the U.S. and Iran to reach a broad accommodation would have a good chance of succeeding. Each side has much to gain from compromising. Washington wants greater transparency and help with Afghanistan. Tehran should see the benefit of a lessened threat to its security, involvement in regional diplomacy, access to technology, and an end to anti-Iranian terrorism. Both may agree that curbing the flow of illegal narcotics and curbing the appetite for power of the Taliban would be plusses.

The regional parity approach, combining principle with bargaining even as it removes Iran from the hot seat, might prove to be particularly effective by offering Iran the opportunity to take high moral ground in regional diplomacy by accepting the concept of leading the region toward a non-nuclear future. We should specify that this regional approach means bringing Pakistan and Israel closer to the Iranian position. This is not easy; at present, it seems utterly unworkable. But enunciation of the principle would ease open the door to Iranian compromise. The “specific, devastating penalties” envisioned by Allison should be defined in reference not just to Iran but to Israel and Pakistan, as well, so we might want to go easy on the “devastating” part.

Specifics can be tinkered with endlessly. One starting point might be rules governing the positioning of nuclear-capable submarines. Another might be steps toward transparency. The technical details are less important than the political decision that each new rule would apply equally to Pakistan, Israel, and Iran. Incentives need not be “devastating” but should come in pairs: a positive incentive and a negative incentive. Even for the world community to agree on verbal condemnation of all countries in the region that violate some set of rules would dramatically change the atmosphere from anti-Iranian discrimination to a principled effort to move the whole region toward a common goal.

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